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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio programme “Good Morning Hungary”

Katalin Nagy: Gradual reopening will start on Monday. Children will be returning to kindergartens and the lower years of primary schools, with higher years in primary schools continuing online learning along with secondary school students. I welcome Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the studio. Since nearly 200,000 people working in education have already been vaccinated, why has the decision been amended? Why are we continuing with this version, in which only the lower grades go back to school next week?

Out of a need for caution and gradualness. We need to picture the situation we’re in now, with approximately 10 million Hungarian citizens and 8 million Hungarian citizens over the age of 18. We’ve vaccinated 3,145,592 of this 8 million. This is the data which was given at this morning’s Operational Group meeting. Another 742,198 have recovered from infection or are about to recover, meaning that we’re very close to reaching 50 per cent of the number of people who can be vaccinated, of the 8 million. We’ll cross this very important watershed within a matter of moments, and then the number of people in Hungary who are protected will be higher than the number of those who aren’t. When last summer we held our first national consultation on the pandemic, we asked what were the measures that people wanted to be introduced last of all. School closures were among those measures. The World Health Organization has also said that schools should be the last institutions to be closed and the first to be reopened. I’m not entirely certain about that, as one fears more for one’s children than anyone, as well as one’s parents; but maybe one fears more for one’s children – or at least in a different way, as one has direct responsibility for them. After all, one’s parents are fully grown, unlike one’s children, and for the latter one somehow feels that the weight of direct responsibility is much greater. So one protects one’s children – and perhaps sometimes more than one should, although this is a natural instinct. So it’s always very difficult to reopen schools, because public opinion is always divided: there are those who agree with it because they want to return to work, while there are others who say that one should be more careful. Now the situation experienced in crèches has played an important role in the decision, because we haven’t closed crèches and the proportion of parents taking their children to them has increased greatly over the past ten days. Then we looked at the hospital statistics, which show us that more than ten thousand of our fellow Hungarians are in hospital with COVID infection – 27 of them children under the age of 14. So parents tend to think that there are many hundreds of children in hospital, but this isn’t the case: there are a total of 27 children under the age of 14 in hospital. Two of them are on ventilators; this is two more than should be, but it’s still only two. The army has disinfected schools, and so we feel that we had to take this step now if we want life to restart and see the return to work of the fathers and mothers of many hundreds of thousands of pupils. The reason that we’ve drawn the line at lower grades is because in the lower four years children usually stay in their class groups, they’re not mixed with children from other classes, and in essence they spend the entire school day with the same classmates. What’s more, if they don’t want to allow their children to go to school parents have the option of contacting the school principal, who’ll decide whether or not the absence can be considered justified. School principals are closest to real life, and are best placed to decide on which decision is in the best interests of the child. It’s sure that reopening schools won’t be easy for teachers either. We’ve been vaccinating them, but fewer have applied for vaccination than I’d hoped for. Nevertheless, we’ve vaccinated all those who have applied. There’s a great need for teachers and the work of teachers, so I ask them to help the country and enable us to restart life.

What did the latest data show this morning?

The number of people who have been vaccinated stands at 3,145,592, and more than 1.3 million people have received their second vaccination. We have lost 241 compatriots, most of whom were elderly. The number of COVID patients in hospital has fallen to fewer than ten thousand: 9,459. But the situation in hospitals is still very difficult. We express our appreciation and gratitude many times over to the nurses, doctors and other staff operating the hospitals – we cannot thank them enough. The number of patients not requiring assisted ventilation is 8,342, and there are still 1,117 of our compatriots on ventilators. This is how the numbers stand.

The number of deaths is declining very slowly. This fact is regularly used against you by the Opposition, and now we even have foreign politicians criticising the pandemic management of Hungary and Poland. It’s true, though, that they don’t talk about where we stand in terms of the proportion of people who’ve been vaccinated.

I don’t have direct information about management of the pandemic in Poland, but I’m well acquainted with the situation in Hungary. And I can say that, after Malta, our population probably has the highest rate of vaccination in Europe. The next six weeks will be decisive; over the next six weeks we’ll be able to double the number of people vaccinated. At today’s Operational Group meeting we devoted a long agenda item to this. On this subject Secretary of State István György is the éminence grise: no one knows him, and only a few know his name – mostly those working in public administration. But he’s the man who guarantees us this calm, predictable, stable vaccination policy. He reported on how we’re going to progress. There’s a shortfall of over 500,000 doses of Western vaccine: this is the vaccine known as Janssen. On this we’ve also had to take an unusual step. This is an American vaccine, and for vaccines from the West in general we automatically accept certification from the authorities, while we examine those from the East more thoroughly – in fact those are the only ones that we examine. But now we’ve ordered that this vaccine should also be examined. So with the Janssen vaccine we want exactly the same examination…

This is a single-dose vaccine, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s single-dose. So we want exactly the same level of examination as if it were a vaccine from the East: we want to see the factory, and we want to see what’s happening there. This is because the news we’ve heard is very alarming, and we’ve ordered a lot of this vaccine. Now 580,000 doses will be missing. In the next few days the Foreign Minister – and then finally I myself – will be working to make up for the missing vaccines with others from elsewhere, mainly from China. We have a good chance of doing this, at least now this is how I see it; and we’ll be able to deliver the amount of vaccine that’s been planned for the next six weeks. This means that we’ll be out of the woods by the end of May or by June.

The number of people who have registered now stands at over 4 million, but this still isn’t enough. If we cast our minds back, we’ll remember that last year, when registration began, the Opposition was urging people not to register, because this would be used by the Government to collect data on them. Now it seems that they’re wheeling out this argument again, and telling the Government to do away with registration. What’s the point of this? Why would this be a good thing?

We don’t know why it would be good; we know why it would be bad, and so we won’t accept the advice of the Opposition or the Left. Vaccination is voluntary, and we need to know who wants to be vaccinated; so we need to collect information in a database, a registration database. On the basis of this we can tell how much vaccine we need to send out, because we can see how many people have registered, what the geographical distribution is, and how much vaccine is needed where. Perhaps I said last time that vaccinating so many people and registering the applicants is probably the largest logistics operation in Hungary since World War II. There are those who accept one type of vaccine, and there are those who accept another type. Five types of vaccine are available in Hungary, and we try to take individual needs into account as much as possible. We have to move fast, and so this is a serious organisational operation for Hungarian public administration and the Hungarian state. It’s a very serious test for all of us: for those of us at the top who are directing the work, and for those in the middle or at the bottom, say, loading vaccines with forklift trucks onto buses and lorries. And then there are people working in public administration receiving the vaccines, because they’re not sent immediately to the vaccination centres, but administrative professionals act as mediators. We tend to talk about them the least, even though they’re at least as important to the delivery of the vaccine as the truck drivers, warehouse personnel or doctors and nurses themselves. So we also owe a debt of gratitude to people working in public administration. I think it’s important that we’ve vaccinated the elderly, that we’ve vaccinated everyone over 65 who has registered, and whom we’ve been able to reach. There are still some people we somehow haven’t been able to reach, either because their children registered them but they don’t want to have the vaccine, or due to some technical difficulties. But in essence we can say that those whose lives could be endangered by the virus and who’ve registered – who have asked for vaccination – have already been vaccinated. The number who’ve been left out is very small, and in those cases the reason is usually a technical one. So all of us who feel a responsibility for our older compatriots will find it easier to sleep. Now there’s one more thing to reckon with, and it’s that from this point on the number of people who have registered is low. There are 4.219 million people who have registered. Somehow the impression, a way of thinking has emerged as a result of the expression “herd immunity” – one which I find extremely repellent, as after all we’re not animals. I’ve come across people who say that there will come a time when 60–70 per cent of society has been vaccinated, and while they’ve not been infected they’ll no longer be in danger and won’t need to be vaccinated. But this is a misleading idea. No one will be unaffected, and there are only two options: either you’ll be vaccinated or you’ll be infected. There is only individual immunity. Individual immunity can only be given by vaccination, and vaccination can save lives. So, no matter how bad this news will sound to them, I want to speak directly to whoever thinks that they can get away with this, or somehow be protected indirectly without being vaccinated: you’re wrong. So there’s individual responsibility, individual immunity, registration and vaccination. Otherwise you won’t be able to avoid falling ill, and – depending on your personal health, living environment or unknown disorders – if you get infected you could die. Vaccination saves lives.

Suppose there’s a pensioner who previously decided not to accept the vaccine and then, let’s say, had a change of mind. But in the meantime they lost the letter received from the Operational Group. What should that person do? Should they go to their general practitioner and ask to be registered? Or go to a government bureau with their ID card and state health insurance number and ask to be registered there?

I very much hope that the country hasn’t gone downhill since I’ve grown to maturity, but in our village the greatest general trust was for the doctor. I’ll honestly say that I belong to a generation for which that was true. We also respected the local priest and trusted the teachers, but the truth is that somehow the person with the highest reputation was the doctor. Such experiences contributed to our decision not to leave general practitioners out of the vaccination process, but to actually make general practitioners key to that process. This places great burdens on them, they need to work very hard, they need to take on responsibility and differentiate between their patients, their fellow citizens. This always leads to debate, because these are very personal matters. Nevertheless we took account of the knowledge, competence, local knowledge, personal commitment, and what I could call the moral greatness that I think our doctors have. We have personal experience of this, especially in relation to our general practitioners, who can even be called in the middle of the night, and so on. So we didn’t want to leave them out of this, because although it’s a logistical operation, at the same time it’s also a deeply human operation. This isn’t about throwing sacks of potatoes onto the back of a truck, but about the need to ensure that people are vaccinated. I’ll say again that, in a spiritual sense, general practitioners are seen as being in the better or exceptionally good section of the country, and so we wanted to involve their emotional intelligence in this work. Therefore I say to everyone that if you’re uncertain about anything, or there’s anything you don’t understand, you don’t know, then don’t hesitate to speak to your family doctor – just as we did in our childhood. I think you can get the most humane help from them.

And then there’s the registration…

They’ll tell you what to do. general practitioners know everything.

Let’s talk about how very important it is for everyone to understand or accept the claim that there’s only one solution – and that’s vaccination, the vaccine. About how politicians and the media as a whole across the country should try to convey this message, because that’s the essence. And yet we don’t see this happening. The State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has calculated that 70 anti-vaccination articles were published in the Hungarian media in three days. These include those that claim there aren’t enough ventilators, then those that day there are too many, and then those stating that storage of the surplus amount is costing millions every month. So one doesn’t know why a section of the press keeps reporting such fake news.

Now we need to work, and we’ll have time for analysis and philosophising later. But from a cultural anthropological or political-anthropological point of view, it will be worth taking a look at ourselves, at Hungary and the Hungarian people. This is because looking at developments internationally, I haven’t seen the type of things that are happening in Hungary. I haven’t seen the Left in any other country openly and brazenly – sometimes directly and sometimes cunningly, but continuously – engaging in political discourse for the creation of a crisis with the aim of prolonging the pandemic, delaying recovery and weakening people’s belief in what they’re being told by the Government. Incidentally, we’re not now talking about the Government, but the leader of the defence operation, and thus one of the most important guarantees of a secure life; now we’re not talking about a political government, but a crisis management operational group. I now feel more like the leader of the Operational Group than the Prime Minister. Now there is no politics; now there is life and the saving of lives. And I see that the Left cannot suppress its own hunger for power, and it’s behaving in a way that I can’t see anywhere else in Europe. And sometimes they say this themselves. So they have an interest in prolonging the pandemic, with one expert saying that this will beneficially weaken the Government and increase the chances of the Opposition and the Left coming to power. Another has complained that they’re not sufficiently turning the suffering and grief caused by people’s deaths against the Government. So I’m seeing insane things. It’s very difficult to talk about this whole phenomenon positively, in a tone which doesn’t cause unnecessary offence. So this is what we have to deal with. This isn’t healthy. I’m holding back people – including some of our Members of Parliament – who are continuously urging for there to be some sort of consequences under criminal law for anti-vaccination activity. Because they’re gambling with people’s lives, they’re playing with people’s lives, putting them at risk. This cannot be tolerated in silence – and yes, criminal law should take a firmer stand on this. There are such proposals, but I don’t want to have to deal with the criminal prosecution of anti-vaxxers in the middle of the defence operation. Instead let’s focus on defence, let people of goodwill in Hungary unite, stand together, help each other, and pull every Hungarian through this pandemic.

If we look around us at surrounding countries, we see that the Czech health minister has been replaced, and government crises have developed in Slovakia and Romania because members of their coalition governments don’t consider their governments’ management of the pandemic to be adequate. But in both Germany and Italy we also see that there’s no consensus between the federal government or its health cabinet and provincial governments. So it seems that if there’s no consensus on this, if there’s no will, this will seriously damage pandemic management.

Yes, but in the West and other countries the debate is still about how to help people better, together and communally. In Hungary the Left is talking about how to harm the Government – even at the cost of human lives. This is a completely different tone, a completely different theme, a completely different approach. This is a different degree of depravity, if I may put it that way. I can honestly tell you that I’m shocked by what I see from the Left: they still have a motion in place for a parliamentary resolution to prevent people being vaccinated with Chinese vaccines. Incidentally, if we hadn’t been using Chinese and Russian vaccines, Eastern vaccines, only about half as many people would have been vaccinated. I see what they’re trying to do. The next six weeks will be crucial, and for this reason we’ve seen an increase in anti-vaccination rhetoric on the Left; because if we manage to implement our vaccination plan for the next six weeks, we’ll be out of the woods, we’ll be done with this. Then Hungary will be the first, second or third country in the world to have emerged from this crisis. This won’t be the success of the Government, but of the whole country, and with it we’ll have saved the lives of many Hungarians, many thousands of Hungarians. At the same time, there’s another phenomenon in the world: the phenomenon of greed for profit, and there I see pharmaceutical companies ensnaring one another and writing all kinds of things about their rivals’ products. So in Hungary we need to take action against multinationals’ hunger for profit and against the Left’s hunger for power, but of which undermine confidence in vaccination. We’re lucky, and the examples you’ve given here also show that in Hungary there’s a unified government. The situation is extremely fragile where there are coalition governments, because dealing with such a pandemic involves a great deal of stress, pressure and responsibility. And the more elements a government is constructed from, the easier this pressure can lead to its unity being split apart at the seams. Now in Hungary we’re lucky, because in 2018 the people decided not to have a fragile coalition government, but a unified government: the Christian Democrats and Fidesz aren’t in a coalition, but an alliance. And so we’re able to work together in complete unity. This is a major advantage for us in management of the pandemic.

Youve said that we can start the very cautious reopening of the country when the number of people who’ve been vaccinated reaches 3.5 million, or 35 per cent of the population. Once we’ve reached this level of 35 per cent, cafe and restaurant terraces will start to reopen. What can be seen of how they’re preparing for this? Do the trade chambers see evidence of this, and what are they reporting to the Operational Group or to you on whether the economy will actually be able to relaunch?

We’ve had a number of consultations, and I’d particularly like to thank the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who have been consulting with us continuously. But I’d also like to thank the representatives of the hotel and hospitality industry, because they’ve also been consulting with us continuously. They’ve made suggestions that we’ve been able to accept, and we’ve made decisions that they’ve seen the need to live with, even though they didn’t like them – when establishments had to close, for example. The current situation – the reopening of terraces – is symbolic, and I’m very optimistic. We’re regaining a very visible part of our former life. I see the Minister of Finance preparing the budget for 2022, the budget for the relaunch. In 2021 and 2022 we’ll be spending 5,000 billion forints on relaunching the economy. So now I not only see the hope that everyone will manage to get back on their feet, but I also see the prospect of that happening. I see the prospect of everyone getting back their jobs, or getting new jobs instead of the old ones they lost. We’ll keep the promise – indeed not just the promise, but the commitment – that every job that the virus destroys will either be reinstituted by us or be replaced by a new one created by us. In fact, today I see that I can do more than that: after the virus we’ll have more jobs than we had before, so the number of jobs will increase. I see the budgetary basis for this, so I’m no longer just talking about hope, but about the prospect that everyone will be able to get back on their feet. I repeat, terraces are important: they’re part of our former life. There are districts – including in the Castle District, District I, where we work – where at the end of last year terrace fees were doubled. I don’t think this is a good policy. So now we’re not just opening up the terraces, but centrally we’ve abolished terrace fees. I must apologise to local governments for not being able to entrust this to them, because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences. So centrally we’ve abolished terrace fees. Furthermore, bureaucratic licences have also been abolished. Subject to certain safety rules, hospitality outlets will specifically be encouraged to put chairs outside and open their terraces and garden areas. And independent of reopening, they can also count on wage support funding in April and May, which will be automatically paid to them by the Government.

Thank you. You’ve been listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.